First of a three part series.
At Alaska 2-1-1, we knew we would get the call. We are always ready. But there was no time to prepare, just time to react and ramp up. On March 6, we had two days to become operational as the emergency information and referral service for the State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage for the duration of the accelerating coronavirus emergency.
In those two days, we had to transform a lean, experienced staff of four call specialists working out of a well-established office at the Muni’s Emergency Operations Center into something new – first, coordinate an overnight expansion including additional United Way employees, medical volunteers and staffers from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Shortly after that, we’d have to make it work remotely. We would not have the collegiality and comfort of our usual confines to ease the long hours, as we did in the days after the November 2018 earthquake. Instead, we would be like a fleet of individual satellites, in touch but out of sight, trying to maintain geosynchronous orbit around an earth in a state of unpredictable wobble.
We had to set and launch an exhausting schedule of seven days a week, 13 hours a day and, at the same time, look out for the health of our call specialists and their families, so they felt secure enough on the home front to meet the 2-1-1 demand on the job. That demand was like no other we have faced.
We scrambled to respond to two surges of acute need – the need for information about the disease itself and the need for help as the hunker-down mandates shuttered businesses and forced layoffs with no idea how long the upheaval would last. At the same time, we had to keep up with the changing status of the providers to whom we connected our callers, because many of them were suffering disrupted lives and income too. Were they shutting down? Cutting hours? Reducing services? Accurate, reliable information is a hallmark of Alaska 2-1-1; the challenge now was to keep pace as the information changed on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
We needed to wrangle order out of our own chaos and still pick up when the phone rang and help a caller through the chaos of their own problems in a changing landscape. And we had to do so with another hallmark of Alaska 2-1-1 – the calm, caring, professional voice and attentive ear that inspire a deep breath and help callers cut their challenges from overwhelming to tough but manageable.
Through all of this, we had to log calls and collect data as we always do. This isn’t just housekeeping. It’s vital to taking and tracking a large, accurate picture of Alaskans’ needs, both in Anchorage and statewide. Over the years, Alaska 2-1-1 has provided both referrals and one of the state’s best measures of the need for them. In feverish days, it’s more important than ever to take the community temperature.
To describe the situation as fluid is an understatement. Everything seemed to be in flux, and on multiple levels. Sullivan Arena became a homeless shelter. The People Mover restricted the number of riders per bus and then all but shut down, cutting transportation options to zero for some hard-hit residents. Families went from two, three or four incomes to none in a matter of days. Changes were coming from all sides at once.
There were constants in the chaos, however, and those carried us through. One was the dedication and care of the core specialists of Alaska 2-1-1 and all the people who joined us. The other was the trust and relationships that Alaska 2-1-1 and United Way of Anchorage have built over decades. We had only two days to make them count, but in fact we’d already done years of preparation for an event none of us saw coming.